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Wholegrains and diabetes


When it comes to your diet, you probably already know you need to eat less saturated fat, salt and sugar and at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. But did you know that wholegrains should also feature? As a nation, we are not eating enough of them.

What are wholegrains?

Wholegrains are the seeds of cereal plants such as wheat, maize, corn, rye, barley, oats, rice and quinoa. In their natural unprocessed state, grains consist of three parts:

  • the endosperm
  • the bran
  • the germ

The endosperm is the central part of the grain and is a concentrated source of starch. The outer most layer, the bran, is a rich source of insoluble dietary fibre, B vitamins and phytochemicals. The germ is a concentrated source of protein, ‘healthy’ fats, B vitamins and vitamin E.

When wholegrains are refined, for instance to make white flour, most of the bran and germ are removed and with it most of the nutrients, dietary fibre and other protective components, which are concentrated in the bran and germ layers.

Wholegrain foods, retain all three parts of the grain. They may be eaten whole (eg brown rice and oats), cracked (eg bulgur wheat), or milled into flour and made into foods like bread and pasta. To qualify as a wholegrain, a food must contain 51 per cent or more wholegrain ingredients by weight per serving.

Why are wholegrains a healthy choice?

Wholegrains are a smart choice, not just for people with diabetes, but for the whole family. If you do have diabetes, wholegrain foods are usually better for managing blood glucose levels because they tend to have a lower glycaemic index (GI). This means they do not affect blood glucose levels as quickly as refined carbohydrate foods. However, since wholegrains are also carbohydrate foods, and all carbohydrates affect blood glucose levels, be mindful of your portion sizes.

Some studies have shown that healthy diets, rich in wholegrain foods, can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, certain types of cancer and Type 2 diabetes. The ways in which wholegrains help prevent these conditions are not fully understood. They can play a part in maintaining a healthy body weight over time as part of a healthy, balanced diet and help keep your gut healthy due to the compounds they contain called phytochemicals. Studies also suggest that wholegrain foods may be more filling than their refined counterparts, which may help reduce the urge for snacking between meals and help people manage their weight.

How much should we eat?

In the UK there are no official recommendations, but most experts recommend at least three servings a day. It’s important to replace refined products with wholegrain foods to help keep your blood glucose and weight in check in the long term.

1 serving of whole grains equals:

  • 25g porridge oats
  • 1 bowl (34g) muesli
  • 1 bowl (30g) toasted wholegrain oat cereal
  • 1 bowl of wheat-based breakfast cereal
  • 1 bowl of breakfast cereal made from wholewheat
  • 1 large slice (40g) multi-grain bread
  • 23g (uncooked weight) brown rice
  • 23g (uncooked weight) wholewheat pasta
  • 3 Ryvitas
  • 3 oatcakes
  • 1 slice of rye bread
  • 1 wholemeal pitta bread

Are there gluten-free wholegrains?

If you follow a gluten-free diet there are plenty of gluten-free wholegrains that you can enjoy such as brown rice, quinoa, uncontaminated oats, millet, sorghum, teff and buckwheat.

What’s the difference between wholemeal, wholewheat, wholegrain and granary bread?

Wholemeal, wholewheat and wholegrain bread are basically different terms for the same thing and all are wholegrain. However, granary bread is slightly different and refers to bread that contains malted wheat flakes that are added to give it a characteristic texture. This may or may not be made from wholemeal flour, so you will need to check the label. Wheat-germ bread is made from white flour to which a portion of wheat germ has been added back, it is not wholegrain.

How to eat more wholegrains

There are plenty of simple and tasty ways to introduce wholegrains into your diet.

  • Choose a wholegrain cereal for breakfast.
  • Swap white bread for wholemeal bread – look for the words ‘wholegrain’ or ‘wholemeal’ on the label.
  • Choose brown rice instead of white – look out for brown basmati and quick-cook brown rice.
  • Use wholemeal flour for baking – if you’re not used to baking with wholemeal flour start by substituting half the white flour with wholemeal. As you get used to cooking with wholemeal flour you can gradually increase the proportion.
  • Choose oatcakes or Ryvita or wholemeal crackers instead of cream crackers.
  • Swap couscous for bulgur wheat.
  • Add barley to soups and stews.
  • Popcorn is a wholegrain so as a treat swap crisps or other savoury for unsalted sugar-free popcorn.
  • Corn on the cob is wholegrain, or you can add sweetcorn to recipes like spaghetti bolognese or chilli con carne.
  • Use porridge oats in crumble toppings.
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